New Books: Border Matter

Following exceprts from the author's latest book The New Border Wars: The Conflicts That Will Define Our Future published by Diversion Books 

by Klaus Dodds

Quan Dinh, a volunteer at the Project Vietnam Foundation, wears a protective mask depicting Vietnam and the South China Sea at the Miyoco Medical Center in Fountain Valley. This face mask is an example of popular geopolitics. Using a now common item, a cloth face mask, the red cross on the map of the South China Sea rejects Chinese sovereign claims over highly disputed islands and surrounding waters. In April 2020, the two countries clashed over fishing rights, and Vietnam accused China of sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the contested Paracel Islands.

Borders and the architecture that enables them have been with us for thousands of years. The oldest walls built for defensive purposes date from twelve thousand years ago in the Middle East, and the earliest recorded city wall was Jericho’s in the Jordan Valley. Built either for defense or flood protection, these walls serve as a reminder that the instinct to fortify has a lineage stretching back thousands of years. Defensive walls found favor in ancient Athens but not in Sparta where the cultivation of warriors was judged to be a far more powerful deterrent than brick and stone. In nearby Constantinople, the famous Theodosian city walls lasted for nearly a thousand years. Built in the fifth century, they were only breached by Ottoman forces in May 1453, aided and abetted by gunpowder and siege cannons. Walls and fortified borders eventually fail due to human ingenuity and determination, while natural disasters such as sandstorms, volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes continue to reveal the limits of city walls and security fences.

Attitudes to bordering, however, ebb and flow over time. In the 1990s, there were far fewer border walls and barriers as governments around the world consumed globalization Kool-Aid—calling for reduced barriers, increased trade, and the spread of democracy. Two decades later, it is commonplace to read of new investment in border security, including barriers, fences, and walls. With funding and logistics in place, contemporary construction crews in the southern borderlands of the United States are reporting that they can build around a quarter of a mile of fencing a day. The land border with Mexico is over 2,000 miles long. President Donald Trump’s ambitions for a “beautiful wall” will take plenty of time and money.

Fences and walls, however, are just one element of border matters. Countries can register their state of border readiness in different ways. Governments might choose to spend millions of dollars and related currencies in introducing drone squadrons and reengineering landscapes for the purpose of improving situational awareness and border surveillance. Alternatively, they might choose to alter prevailing visa arrangements and restrict the entry of citizens from countries judged to be dangerous, insecure, threatening, or hazardous to health.

We should not forget that there are other bordering options too. Countries can choose to “open” their borders for strategic reasons. They might decide not to prevent the flow of people and goods. For much of the migrant crisis affecting Southeast Europe and the near Middle East from 2015 onwards, the relationship between Turkey and the European Union has pivoted around the question of the land and sea border between Greece and Turkey. Hosting millions of Syrian refugees and others from countries such as Afghanistan, Ankara, and Brussels have been locked in acrimonious disputes about how those refugees and migrants are accommodated. Angry with apparent European indifference to its strategic interests on the Turkey-Syria borderlands, the Turkish government in February 2020 simply encouraged thousands of migrants to make their way towards the Greek border. In contemporary Turkey, the southern border is highly militarized and securitized while the integrity of the western border depends on the strategic calculations of the political leadership. Fearful of yet more migrants to accommodate and redistribute within the European Union bloc, Turkey has used the state of its borders to leverage financial aid and political support.

We always come back to bordering as an activity rather than simply the static border wall or the inert line on the map. Why might this be? In reality, there are many drivers that underpin investment in border security, and, on the other hand, there are reasons simply not to bother ensuring their inviolability. Those drivers might be cultural, economic, and political such as fears and worries about migrants overwhelming indigenous cultures, hostile third parties enabling conflict and terrorism, and third parties carrying disease. There are also financial imperatives as well, which are often less discussed. The European and North American experiences of border infrastructure and security illustrate a sprawling industrial-legal-political-military complex, involving a cast of characters such as defense personnel, border guards, lawyers, policymakers, smugglers, private contractors, civil society groups, and political leaders. Here, border security and control is highly lucrative. In a report released in March 2019, the business analytical group Frost and Sullivan estimated that the border security market will be worth at least $168 billion by 2025. New investment will target real-time data analysis, as border security agencies attempt to improve their capacities to detect and prevent the irregular movement of people and goods.

Countries with mature border security industries are seeking to export their security technologies and digital surveillance capabilities. For example, the global military drone market is projected to grow in the 2020s and be worth upwards of $500 million per year. It is proving highly profitable in migratory hotspots such as Europe and North America, as well as other locations where border disputes are “live.” In South America, fixed-wing drones have been deployed in an ever-greater number in disputed areas between Venezuela and Guyana. Fixed-wing drones have greater endurance and can cover larger areas that may be disputed or in need of border surveillance. The drone industry is in rude health and countries such as Switzerland are actively marketing themselves as a “drone nation.”

The European Border Surveillance system (EUROSUR) creates its own business opportunities for member states. In 2019, it awarded Greece a grant of around $60 million to develop a new surveillance system for the Aegean Sea, in effect the EU’s eastern border with Turkey. The money will be used to provide a 24/7 monitoring system for the Greek coastguard and navy, and thus help improve situational awareness, the aim being to intercept illegal smuggling operations. Information will be shared between the Greek authorities and the European border security agency FRONTEX, based in Warsaw.

Border building and investment, however, bring with them costs—to taxpayers, to migrants, to border guards, and to wildlife. The Sierra Club in the United States has highlighted the damage done to southern border ecosystems. The Santa Ana national wildlife refuge in Texas is a ground zero for ecological impact. Around the proposed border fencing route, vegetation will be removed, landscape is due to be reengineered so that it is flat and even surfaced, and bright lighting will be installed throughout the night. Any border building project is going to require property to be bought, exclusion zones to be established, and new laws introduced to allow the federal government to overturn any national wildlife refuge status. Environmental impact assessment and review could be simply dispensed with or downgraded. Appeals to national security often end up trumping all other considerations.

Border security projects generate political frustration the world over. In March 2019, the Kenyan government committed itself to building a new border fence at a cost of $35 million for a six-mile stretch of fencing. The original plan in 2014 called for a new 435-mile wall to be established in the light of the dire security situation to the east of the country. Kenya has in recent years been rocked by terrorist incidents, including the 2013 Westgate mall shooting in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and the Garissa University College attack of 2015. More than two hundred people perished in those two attacks alone. The attackers were identified as being members of the Al-Shabaab terror group based in southern Somalia. In his 2019 State of the Union address, President Uhuru Kenyatta stated that the government was “strengthening border security and management.” But Kenyan parliamentarians, despite the threat posed by terrorism and cross-border militancy, demanded a cessation due to spiraling costs. The building of the wall has now stopped with the 6.2 mile stretch left incomplete.

The Kenyan experience is not unique. Persistent financial overspend is endemic to the implementation of border hardware. The millions of dollars and other currencies spent on motion detectors, drone patrols, fencing, and surveillance technologies rarely produce positive cost-benefit assessments. By the time the Obama administration assumed office in January 2009, spending on border security and immigration policing was running into billions of dollars. In 2012, it was announced that $18 billion was being spent on immigration policing alone, some $10 billion more than on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As more money was being spent on the southern border in particular, migrant detention facilities were privatized, and the number of migrants rose steadily. The immigration detention sector became a huge industry with more people being detained and deported than ever before. It is now worth billions of dollars annually. In combination with detention centers, the cost of further state and federal investment in technological infrastructure, including drone patrols, radar facilities, and ground-level surveillance is not insubstantial. Border hardware is big business.

As well as being big business, borders are political dynamite. They are integral to political campaigning across the world, with national leaders promising their citizens that they will be tough on the causes of border insecurity. Nowadays, their pledges often capture the news cycle because border stories are rarely out of the media. At least the sort of news stories that address walls, fences, and the experiences of those who attempt to cross them or defend them. It is often the shocking pictures of dead migrants that garner the most public attention. Few readers will forget the terrible pictures of a dead Syrian-Kurdish boy, Aylan Shenu (Alan Kurdi). He was found on a beach in September 2015 after drowning somewhere in the Mediterranean. The image of the stricken child quickly went viral and provoked a backlash against the immigration policies of the EU. Social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle have combined to ensure that the cross-border stories of refugees, migrants, humanitarian organizations, and reception communities receive far more attention than in the past.

Borders, and border stories, retain considerable allure for many ordinary people—often leading to demands for them to stop being “violated.” Autocrats and populist leaders around the world have leaped upon the border bandwagon and have used and abused that allure to promote their claims on expanded territory or to demand pernicious controls on some people and things trying to enter those same territories.

COMPETITIVE ALLURES IN HIGHLY DISPUTED AREAS

In China and Japan—though not only in these nations—maps of national territories cultivate not just allure but also anxiety about them being breached. Designed to show Japanese citizens the true extent of their national territories, in 2016 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo produced a map showing the “shape of Japan,” in which the country is seen to incorporate the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The map aims to reassure the Japanese public that these islands are considered Japanese but also it serves to remind citizens that the country’s territorial integrity depends on having investment in naval and military forces capable of deterring three nuclear-armed states—China, Russia, and North Korea.

This is clearly a tall order given the conventional military capabilities of all three neighboring states. The task matters all the more now that US support is a great deal less assured than it was during the Cold War. The maritime boundaries are depicted in bold, and no distinction is made, visually at least, between land and sea. Japan is shown as a seamless continuum of land and sea territories, where everything is considered vital to national security, including the remotest and most thinly populated islands. The “dots on the map” matter.

An accompanying video informs viewers in English about the islands to the south of Japan and how they were “returned” to Japan after the postwar occupier, the United States, signed the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement. The video notes, optimistically, that Chinese maps and newspapers depict and acknowledge the islands to be Japanese territory rather than Chinese. The reality is a great deal more worrisome for Japan—China does not acknowledge Japanese sovereignty over these disputed islands.

South Korea and Japan clash over their mutual maritime borders, they dispute ownership of Takeshima (and the fishing grounds around the small islands), and even the term to describe the waters that separate them is a source of disagreement. Japan insists the waters are part of the Sea of Japan while South Korea prefers the East Sea. Japan has lobbied the International Hydrographic Organization, which produces official maps of oceans and seas, to persuade the South Koreans to accept the name the Sea of Japan. What makes the issue of the islands—and the naming of the sea—toxic is that relations between the countries have been punctuated by conflict, and South Korea insists that the term Sea of Japan was popularized during the hated era of Japanese colonial occupation (1910–45). Both countries accuse one another of inflaming the situation. Provocative maps of their respective national territories are often seized upon as evidence of malfeasance.

Maps are used aggressively to support China’s geopolitical interests. Its use of what is called the “Nine Dash Line” (sometimes referred to as the Ten Dash Line) on its official maps of the South China Sea to depict a large area of sea, island, and seabed under its effective control has become widespread in recent times. The Nine Dash Line has upset all of China’s regional neighbors. In Vietnam, social media was abuzz in October 2019 about a joint American-Chinese cartoon animation film called Abominable, a heart-warming tale about a young Chinese girl called Yi and her friends who encounter the legendary snowman in the mountains of Tibet. What caught the eye of Vietnamese viewers was a scene in the film involving a map on the wall in Yi’s house. In between postcards and photographs, there is a brief glimpse of the controversial dash line. As soon as it was remarked upon, the government of Vietnam ordered the movie to be withdrawn, and movie posters were taken down across the country.

The South China Sea is a prime example of how Chinese technological investment in border expansion has been matched by visual campaigning, which uses new maps of Chinese maritime sovereignty in individual passports and public information videos to inform citizens about how the country is protecting its national territories. This is of increasing concern to the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia, as well as to Vietnam, as they all have their own maritime claims, resource interests, and strategic visions. The expansion of Chinese territorial control and border protection is driven by resource potential and strategic access. In 2018, the United States Energy Information Administration released its estimates of potential energy resources in the region, which included over 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. As a vital sea lane for its near neighbors, and a rich fishing ground with accompanying hydrocarbon potential, the maritime borders of the South China Sea will be mired in controversy and possibly conflict.

Chinese media is good at reminding citizens why all of this is integral to the country’s future. Artificial island building, security patrolling, and surveillance of others is all considered to be vital given that 80 percent of its oil imports travel through the South China Sea. As well as maps and promotional videos, drilling rigs and fishing vessels contribute to a portfolio of activities that make up border culture. Legal judgments against China don’t seem to make much difference. China uses military and commercial levers to persuade countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines to work on joint exploratory projects or bully them into not doing things even within their own waters.

The Philippines has been caught between a desire to move away from long-standing subservience to former colonial power the United States and unease at its exposure to Chinese land and resource grabbing. Recognizing the power imbalance in their relationship, the Philippines chose to work with China and announced that it was “allowing” it to fish in the West Philippine Sea. The consequence is that President Rodrigo Duterte has had to spend considerable time and effort reminding his domestic audiences that the Philippines has not given up on border protection, as the Chinese vessels fishing in Filipino national waters are doing so with his personal permission. He has to resort to near constant linguistic gymnastics as he repeatedly downplays incidents involving Chinese vessels harassing Filipino fishermen. Meanwhile, Duterte has been told by opposition politicians that he cannot give away the country’s fishing rights, with arguments raging about whether the Filipino constitution forbids the government to allow others to exploit the country’s marine wealth. 

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Copyright © 2021 by Klaus Dodds

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He is a leading authority on geopolitics. Since 2006, he has written a monthly geopolitics column for Geographical Magazine; he gives frequent talks on border issues, is an expert in the geopolitics of international terrorism, and is often invited to join panels at events and in the media (including on BBC TV and radio) on the subject of border issues. Dodds is also a recipient of the Philip Leverhulme Prize, awarded to “outstanding researchers whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising.”

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